First thoughts upon finishing Dionysius’ Celestial Hierarchy

I recently finished the Celestial Hierarchy of (Pseudo-)Dionysius the Areopagite. This is the first work of the Dionysian corpus I’ve spent any time with, although I’ve read about him before (e.g. Andrew Louth, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition). A few thoughts.

First things first, for readers of this blog: Ps-Dionysius is the author of a corpus of mystical-theological works, pretending to by the Dionysius of the Areopagus converted by St Paul in Acts 17:34. Despite the attempts of the translator of the version I read (Rev. John Parker), Dionysius did not write any of these. St Ignatius does not quote him — he quotes St Ignatius. And most of the other internal evidence is precisely what you’d do if you were writing a forgery. Anyway, that’s largely neither here nor there for my purposes; it’s just worth noting.

These treatises of spiritual theology appeared around the year 500 and were instantly successful in the eastern Church, on both (all three?) sides of the Chalcedonian divide. I am unsure, but I do not know of any Latin translation until Eriugena in the 800s. Enough introduction.

First and foremost, before discussing the idea of hierarchy itself, Dionysius is a good place to go to get embroiled in the philosophy of God and apophatic theology. Apophatic theology is discussing God by negation — God is infinite, immortal, invisible, etc. He is encountered in the cloud of Mt Sinai (Ex 24:18).

Writes the Areopagite:

And so Divine things are honoured by negations which teach the truth, and by comparisons with the lowest things which are diverse from their proper representation. For the reasons assigned, there is nothing absurd if they depict even the celestial Beings under dissimilar similitudes with misrepresent them. (ch. 2, p. 21 in Parker)

I really, really like the idea of ‘dissimilar similitudes’. God is the final cause of all that is. He is the unmoved mover. He is the Being that is ultimately beyond Being. Anything we can say about God we say through analogy, and all of our analogies break down — thus, dissimilar similitudes.

Later, when discussing what the Seraphim taught Isaiah, Dionysius writes:

The Theologian [Isaiah] then learned, from the things seen, that as compared with every superessential pre-eminence, the Divine was seated above every visible and invisible power, and that He is exalted above all, as Absolute — not even comparable to the first of created Beings. Further also, that He is the very Being of all, and Cause of all cause, and unalterable centre of the undissolved continuance of all, from Whom is both the being and the well-being of the most exalted Powers themselves. (ch. 13, p. 41 in Parker)

I imagine some people’s minds may be aching. Some may be crying out with Abba Serapion, when forbidden to imagine God anthropomorphically, ‘They have taken away my God, and I do not know where to find him!’ (A story from Cassian.) But I hope you will give the philosophy of God and Being and causation some thought.

Here is a reason, if you need one. I was once attempting to explain to a friend that not only do I find God as Final Cause a logical necessity, I also, nevertheless, believe that God can be considered personal, or, at least, not less than the personal. Now, most people who are unacquainted with the theology of personhood of, say, Met. John Zizioulas (Being As Communion) can only imagine person = humanoid. My friend thus proclaimed that by calling God ‘person’, it is the same as pigeons imagining a god who is simply just a big superpigeon.

I had to leave, but not having read Zizioulas, let alone any other philosophy of God, at that point, I am not sure how I would have answered him back then.

Apophatic theology and dissimilar similitude assert that God is beyond being, but that He is somehow like Being as we think of it. God is personal, but (to cite a chapter title of C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity) beyond personality.

Briefly on hierarchy. Andrew Louth tells me that this is the first instance of the word. And it is not what we mean. We see hierarchy as a chain of command, of those with authority commanding and controlling those underneath them, from the Field Marshal to the Private.

For Dionysius — and here we get a bit Neoplatonist — the hierarchy is about communicating knowledge of and grace from God from those higher to those lower. Each order of celestial beings has its own place in the hierarchy, and each position has its own capacity to know God and role to play in the economy of God’s universe. The celestial hierarchy is the means by which God manifests Himself to His creation in the way most perfect and most suited to each rank of the celestial beings.

This is not hierarchy as we know it, and we should think on that when we consider our role in the institutional hierarchies we inhabit. How are we helping those below us fulfil their own role? How do we relate to those above us? What is our role? Maybe a more grace-filled, Dionysian approach to our work and life would be beneficial.

3 thoughts on “First thoughts upon finishing Dionysius’ Celestial Hierarchy

  1. Thank you for this article on Pseudo-Dionysius and apophatic theology.
    Coming at this subject from an art historical perspective, you might be interested in my article and short video of the Romanesque tympanum of Moissac. It has been convincingly argued, particularly by Yves Christe, that the Pseudo-Dionysius and its Latin translation by Eriugena played an important part in the development of Romanesque art.
    https://compostela.co/great-portals/the-romanesque-tympanum-of-the-apocalypse-at-moissac/

    • Thanks for this — I’d not considered the Romanesque reception of Dionysius, just the Gothic, which is so clear from Abbot Suger at St-Denis.

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